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November 23, 2006

Trail Running

In the recent months Ani and I have “gone off” the road so to speak and been running on trails. I wanted to write a bit about what I learnt about trail running, perhaps it may help other people who may be interested get off the road too :).

Most of us have been on some sort of trails when hiking – the unpaved muddy roads that lead into woods and nature all around or into bare hills and mountains with stone and gravel and rock. A trail run is generally all these – sometimes dirt toads, sometimes rocky, but almost always hilly.

When we started running distances beyond a marathon (50 km/50 mile) I used to wonder why all the ultra marathons are on trails and not on roads, the answers led me to some of the differences between trail and road running.

  • Most trails are parks are owned by the state/public and can be open for quite a while which makes it possible for the time the ultras take.
  • Running on trails is softer on the knees than the road which makes a big difference in the longer distances
  • You can just be with nature
  • The terrain is very rugged and requires your constant presence

While the trails can be less impact on your body (not down hills though :)) it takes a lot out of you to do the same distance due to the concentration that it requires.

The equipment for running trails is quite different than when you run on the roads, it gets darker earlier in the woods and you need to carry head lights. There is very little support you will receive and you generally need to carry enough water, electrolytes, food. I use a fuel belt and also a camelbak. I also had a lot of trouble initially without trail running shoes. Trail shoes are different from road running shoes – they are one piece in the full sole and doesn’t bend as much as road running shoes, this way the entire foot moves together and different bones and muscles in the foot don’t rub against each other. Unlike road shoes that give a lot of ankle protection trail shoes “break” easily at the ankle. The twisting at the ankle takes a getting used, but your ankles get stronger and it ensures that the foot doesn’t get hurt in the longer run due to the uneven terrain. The shoes also have a hard sole which helps in making sure that stone and sharp edges don’t penetrate the shoe and hurt the sole of your foot.

When you like to run on the main roads of a city, have crowds cheering, have plenty of support from friends and many water stops you run a race on the road. The times you look forward to quiet contemplation, be with nature, challenging yourself like never before when no one is watching. This is when you run trails. As one of the fellow runners mentioned road running is good for personal records, but trail running is good for the soul.

Anita and Sanjeev's running page

November 17, 2006

Bandera and the 43 mile weekend

On 10th Nov evening we drove to Bandera. Joe, our coach, had booked a camping site for the 20 odd ultra marathon runners who were planning to run the next day in the desolate and intimidating hills of Bandera. We (me, Ani, Gaurav, Santhosh, Ganesh) were looking forward to the most hyped run in the period of our training as the toughest course we will ever run.

We started from Austin around 5:00 p.m. and reached the site by around 8:00 p.m. Most of the folks were already there and had set up tents and a central place to sit and chat. It was pretty dark, but with our headlights (which we use to run in the dark) and a lamp we put up the tents. It’s amazing how the small bag opened up to the size of a tent 3 people can fit in (or perhaps as Ganesh would contend two people kicked and mauled by the third). This was my first camping experience and a lot of fun. We then sat down with the other runners and chatted a bit. This was when I saw my first wildlife on trail runs, it looked like a cat in the dark walking around the tent area and when I pointed to it the other runners laughed and said that it is back. It was a raccoon, not a tiny creature as I had imagined. It looked exactly like the over the hedge. Over our chat the seasoned runners took their time in giving us horror stories, much like a regular camping stories except that the stories were of running on the trails of Bandera. Anyway, we went back near our tent and decided to snack before sleeping. Something needs to be said about our appetite, but I can’t quite gather the words and if I could it would probably have been eaten too. We finished almost all the food, intended for pre, during and after the run the next day.

We were to start running at daybreak (7:10 a.m.), we woke up around 6 and got ready to go to running site. I went to meet the other runners and borrowed half a bagel & pb from Mark. We drove to the starting point that was 10 mins from the camping site (enough time to finish the little food that was left). It was a chilly morning and the scenery was beautiful, lush green hills till the eye could see and we sat admiring the pretty picture till one of us pointed out that the course probably required us to run them. Bandera is a beautiful state park, with many equestrian stops for people to bring their horses and trot on the hills.

We got out of our cars and immediately pointed the hills to Joe and asked if we were going to run them. To our temporary relief Joe dismissed the suggestion, but then said that today we run the hills on our left.

Joe went ahead and described the course mentioning bad hills pretty much throughout the course. The longest and worst hill in the course was called lucky peak, then there were other cute names - boyle’s bump, Cairns hills. Also somewhere on the hills were ice cream hill, the three sisters, etc so it was a bit of a surprise that there was actually something called the big nasty on our course. As a side, there is even a mountain named after Joe (not on our course called Mt.Fuji) following an ill-conceived 100 mile course designed by Joe that only one runner finished. FUJI, of course, is an acronym, the last two letters standing for Joe idiot. I guess it gives us some idea of what our coach is like and why we took it seriously when he said that this was a long and tough 10 mile loop. One of our experienced runners Dano went around congratulating all of us with, we are all winners just for being here, this was not comforting at all.

The 50k aspirants (me and Ani) we planning to do two loops, 20 miles and the 50 mile aspirants (Gaurav, Santhosh, Ganesh) were planning to do three loops, 30 miles. I had a fuel belt with three bottles of cytomax (something like Gatorade, but with 1/3 the sugar and no caustic sting that corrodes the teeth), I was carrying a bottle of cytomax in hand, two cliff blocks, one chocolate cliff shot and a camelbak of water. Ani commented that I was far too loaded for a 10 mile course, but I didn’t want to take any chances since I’m legendry as far as getting lost is concerned and this was literally in the middle of nowhere. The course is tagged with small orange and white streamers that you need to lookout for.

Ani and I ran together till the foot of the hill leading to lucky peak (or somewhere in the .65 mile incline). I’m not sure if it was the fresh, cold morning, but though I was breathing a little hard I felt really good at the top of lucky. I yelled for Ani to make sure that she was doing ok in spite of her ITB that has been troubling her off late and when I heard back from her I took off. (Ani has her own story of thinking I screamed as I was falling off a cliff and leaning over the edge looking for me falling, but that is a story she can talk about.) I kept my “pace” (for a lack of a better word) through the hills and mountains to follow and in 2 hrs 40 mins I made it back to start. It was indeed a very tough course, not at all hyped up for something it wasn’t. I did the 10 miles in the same pace as I had done my 3M half. But, I was thrilled it was still much faster than I had imagined I would be able to do it. I refueled and mentally made a picture of trying to do a third loop once I finished the next loop…of course, this wasn’t going to be the case.

In the second loop I was still going strong when I went past Lucky Peak, but about an hour past that I got hopelessly lost. There were many divisions on the road and I took a chance and followed a few of them, finally I saw some streamers and was thrilled that I had found some way. I was a little taken aback I found myself at the foot of the mountain leading to Lucky Peak. I pondered whether I should go back and look for where I got lost or just run up Lucky all over again. For the benefit of aspiring trail runners I implore you not to do what I did next and just turnover and look for where you got lost…Well we had done 8 repeats of the “Hill of Life” the previous Wed (which I used to think was an unbelievable hill till then), I was feeling pretty good and was planning to put in a few miles and had not yet finished even my bottle so I decided to stick to the course since I had found it. I ran up Lucky again. This time it was a lot tougher, the sun was out doing what it does at noon and I was getting dehydrated pretty fast. I guzzled down what was left in the bottle by the time I got to the top of Lucky and started working on one of the bottles in the belt. I was also well aware that I had dropped one of the three bottles in my belt running the last loop and was just down to two. I calmed myself a bit and reminded myself that I’m still carrying three cliff shots/blocks that should be plenty to get me back to the start safely. The fallacy of my decision slowly started sinking in another hour as I seemed to get lost in around the same area. Nothing could have prepared me for what was to come next, I found myself at the bottom of Lucky again. I’ve never felt so demoralized while running before and this was the first time I felt that if I tried running up lucky again it would certainly kill me. I calmed myself and ate some cliff blocks. I took out the map that I had carefully kept in a plastic bag to avoid sweat getting all over it. In a few minutes, I realized that it is possible to make a loop around Lucky and this is what I had been doing. I made my way back, but again and again I found splits which were not there in the map and I tried one split after the other hoping to find some flag that would show me the way. I went back and forth on the roads never knowing how far was too far and kept turning back when I hit more forks. Finally, I started following up one path till a dead end and eliminated all paths and kept going further and further back on roads I had traveled. I was now down to my last bottle of Cytomax and as I took the first sip I realized that I had not rinsed the bottle enough and I could taste the soap. I remembered vaguely that if you hold you breath you don’t taste things much and tried drinking a bit and drowning it down with some water from my camelback.

Eventually, I found three markers on a tree that was in the shade that I had manage to miss them. Missing three markers that seemed so obvious now had a very disheartening effect on me I was no longer sure if I was running the right course and did a lot of back and forth every mile or so. I asked myself to snap out of it since I had already run some 15-16 miles on this loop and was running very low on resources. Everything looked familiar and everything looked unfamiliar suddenly I heard footsteps behind me and Gaurav said hi. He was on his last loop and he said that we are almost there just another 5-10 mins. I was pretty happy to see him, I told him that I did Lucky repeats but didn’t feel like telling him that my nerves were very rattled. I was just happy that I was about to finish. I had one of the two cliff shots I had left and some water from my camelback. I tried to keep up with him for some time, but when we got to the Big Nasty I couldn’t keep up. I felt very disheartened when I could not see him anymore and was almost sure that I will get lost again.

I think a good part of trail running is pushing your mind to do what you are not comfortable with and staying strong, you flinch and you get into trouble. I flinched, saw some flags and happily followed them. The trail however looked completely unfamiliar, the number of the trail was not on the map, but I was so unconvinced of my ability to track and perhaps was just so brain-dead that I continued running the course. I didn’t realize that Joe had marked another loop for the advanced runners with the same colors and they intersected at this point. I had just started on another 10 mile loop minutes from finishing my loop. I soon ran out of water, but I could see the flags and convinced myself that I should just keep going. It was very hot and I was starting to feel pretty dehydrated I had one cliff shot left and no water, but I decided against taking it. I decided that I would run as long as I could and when I could not push myself anymore just sit next to a flag, wait to be rescued and have my shot then. As I kept running I didn’t see a streamer for a while and accosted some cowboys on their horses. I asked them if they could read my map and give me directions, they gave me another map that completely confused me, they tried to tell me some directions but I wasn’t sure exactly where I was trying to go on their map so it didn’t help. As I was speaking to them I saw a glimmer or orange on a tree and decided to keep following the flags. One of the horsemen joked that the cactus was edible. I was surprised that I found it funny, I think I had just lost it.

As I followed the orange streamers I came to a really bad hill. I had definitely not run on this one before it struck me now that it might be the markings of a different loop perhaps if I keep following the signs I will finish. I climbed the hill and as I came down it I hit another and then another (the three sisters as they are called). I had been running for about 45 mins without water by then and I knew I was in trouble I ran up the next hill and faintly I could hear my name. I took my ipod off (I think the songs had kept me going so far) and heard someone calling my name. I knew the rescue party had come, Gaurav must have finished and told people that he saw me, and that I was low on water and when I didn’t finish they had come out looking for me. I was lucky that I was on a hill since you can hear someone for miles from a hill, but not from a valley. I yelled back with all I had and tried screaming out the number of the path I was on. I got to the edge of the hill and started waving hoping that someone could see me. I saw an orange shirt somewhere on one of the opposite hills I was hoping that this was the person looking for me and that he had seen me. I started running back the way I came in about 10 mins I saw Mark. He always has a very friendly smile and I think for once I could match his smile as I grinned ear-to-ear when I met him. He gave me a bottle of ice-cold water - it was liquid heaven! He asked me if I wanted to sit down for sometime, but I was fine just very, very dehydrated. I was lapping down the water by the second and wondering if he had any more. Joe had tried triangulating my location with two other runners and Mark had found me first and informed all of them. I met Joe and Santhosh at the end of the third sister. Joe gave Santhosh the directions and he and Mark took off to inform the others that they had found me so they didn’t call the cops or anything. I was jogging back with Santhosh who was carrying plenty of water after some distance I just started walking we were taking a nice flat route that went around all the hills to get back. I couldn’t wait to see Ani and tell her all about my adventure and made it back quite ok. I made it back to base at 4:45 p.m. I had been out running for some 8-1/2 hrs!!!

Joe joked I had given him an idea for a course that would involve Lucky hill repeats! Others mentioned that it would probably have my name in the loop in some form and I should look out for myself next year…I was also unanimously upgraded to a 50 miler if I could get up the next day and run motive. I just wanted to eat something and get some sleep. We made it back to Austin by 9:00 p.m. and I slept soundly.
Surprisingly, I woke up the next day and run the motive half-marathon in 3 hrs 1 min. But, that’s a different story :)

Anita and Sanjeev's running page

November 06, 2006

Reminiscences of Chicago Training

I started training for the Chicago marathon in June. It started off with a few of us talking about running a Fall marathon and one of the big ones. I also thought I would be able to train better in summer, with no school deadlines. I knew it would not be easy to train through a Texas summer and it wasn't! Our long runs on Saturdays initially started at 6 AM, then they got moved to 5:30, then 5 and I vaguely remember one attempt to start earlier than that. It was quite an interesting experience running in the dark, a little spooky actually! Thankfully I had company.
On one such run, a dog adopted Santhosh and me near the Longhorn dam. Santhosh promptly named it Pebbles. And why Pebbles? A long story and maybe in another entry! Thanks to Pebbles, I ran much faster than usual while Santhosh was busily thinking about how to take Pebbles home etc. He got quite attached to it and was quite hurt when Pebbles got tired of us at a waterstop and started running behind someone else!
And then came Anurag! He was also training for the marathon, so after much grumbling about the super early run, he accompanied us to Town Lake. It started off with a few runners passing us on the trail, then some others and so on. Finally he got super bugged with my speed and decided that at my pace, the only targets we could pass were trees! Sigghhh...and this was just the beginning of the run! The rest of it was a joy for my running buddies. Siblings can be so dangerous!
One Wednesday morning Gaurav and I were at the tracks for our quality workout. And we bumped into Steve, the head coach for Team Asha. However, for the Chicago marathon, we were not training with him. Steve asked us how we were doing and how our training was going etc. I was quite kicked with how I was training and I gave him a happy nod and looked at Gaurav for a similar reaction. But he looked rather guilty and told Steve we were just doing some running now and then, nothing regular and such! Here I thought I was being very good about the training - I mean, how often does one show up on the tracks around 5:30 am and run - but apparently not! He is not called A+ for no reason :)
And I will never forget our first 20 mile run. Coachji (Vinod) chalked out the route. A 9-10 mile look including the Enfield hills and then the 10-11 mile St. Edwards loop. Oh it was crazy hilly! I had not run the St. Edwards loop before, so was mentally prepared for a run that was initially hilly but it just stayed that way. The Antakshari we started around mile 14 was a lot of fun and kept me distracted for a few miles. And Santhosh's discovery that he lost his car keys, house keys and the spare keys for the house called for some animated discussion of the possibilities. Vinod talked with relish about how one could find this person in East Austin who was such a super whiz, he could unlock your car in minutes. Here poor Santhosh was looking positively miserable and Vinod would just not stop about the keymaker! Despite all this entertainment, I threw such a tantrum when the promised road, Robert Lee, took forever to materialize! Not sure why everyone put up with me but I was glad for it :) We finally found Santhosh's keys and all was good.
The next 20 plus mile run was a lot better but far less eventful. For one, Santhosh and Vinod were missing. They had started training for their Sunmart 50 miler a couple of weeks back and had run the previous day. Anurag reached Austin half day later than he had planned and after an interesting detour. Gaurav, our coach-in-training (literally!) decided we would run the Runtex to Runtex route. We started out quite early and after a few miles of hill complaints, Anurag warmed up and looked comfortable in the Austin weather. Luckily, the weather that day was decent. We ran about 10 miles before we met Sanjeev to refill and replenish our fuel. We took a 10 minute break before continuing with the rest of the run. 4 miles later, we were at Town Lake and were pleasantly surprised to find Santhosh and Ganesh waiting for us. Despite my IT Band pain, the rest of the run was a nice big party.
Oh, all those evenings! It was quite challenging to be disciplined about food and sleep, especially since it was holiday time for me. Sanjeev made sure I went to bed early and sometimes even woke me up at 4:30 after an all nighter watching TV! I would return the favor by waking him up after my run and breakfast.
And that brings us to food! This account would be so incomplete without a mention of the foodplaces that made the last 2-3 miles good. Two eggs cooked overhard with wheat toast and fresh squeezed orange juice were my staple meal at Magnolia's which is right by Town lake. The freshly squeezed orange juice is just amazing. It is locally made by Goodflow and is sweet and refreshing. Then the veggies-and-pesto-on-focaccia bread was discovered in Whole Foods and I stuck to it until the spinach fiasco resulted in no pesto!
All in all, it was a wonderful experience and I am glad for all the wonderful discussions, friendly banter, support and team spirit.